It’s more than likely that the name “Corot” immediately elicits an idyllic scene of feathery trees bathed in the silvery light of the Ile-de-France; water might be gleaming somewhere in the picture, with a boatman in the distance, his red cap seasoning the expanse of subtly modulated gray-greens. The association is accurate. During his lifetime, as today, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) was best known and most celebrated for his landscapes. Critics of the day acclaimed them, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century collectors in Europe and the United States responded to them enthusiastically, which accounts for the large number of pellucid Corot landscapes now in public collections. But throughout the five-and-a-half decades of his working life, and especially in his later years, Corot was also a painter of figures, usually solitary women, sometimes reclining nudes, bathed in form-accentuating light and painted with an economy and geometric rigor that make them seem at once classicizing and presciently modern. (The settings are sometimes as delicately brushed as the best-known landscapes, but the figures are always solid and substantial.) Corot’s figures constitute a far smaller part of his large oeuvre and, until after his death, were rarely seen outside of his studio. But discerning viewers, especially artists, greatly admired them, both in his day and afterwards. The list is impressive. There’s evidence that Degas thought Corot was better at painting figures than landscapes. Perhaps because of this, Degas’ friend and collector Henri Rouart owned a marvelous late painting of a standing woman, while Mary Cassatt, who was also close to the notoriously private painter of dancers, racetrack scenes, and women at their ablutions, encouraged her friend Louisine Havemeyer to acquire Corot’s female figures. The Havemeyers eventually owned about two dozen such pictures; other ambitious American collectors, including Chester Dale and Chicago’s Mrs. Potter Palmer, were also fans of the genre. From the visible repercussions in their work, it’s clear that both Cézanne and Picasso looked hard at Corot’s women and learned from them, as did Braque. There’s even photographic documentation that Braque had reproductions of two large, important female figures, Agostina (1866, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) and Gypsy with a Mandolin (1874, Museu de Arte de São Paulo), in his studio. More recently, Lucien Freud owned the mysterious, rock-solid, half-length Italian Woman (Woman with a Yellow Sleeve) (ca. 1870, National Gallery, London), although one might wish that the bad boy of British figuration had paid more attention to Corot’s example.

Now, happily, Corot’s notable achievement as a figure painter is celebrated in “Corot: Women” at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.1 Organized by the museum’s curator and head of the department of French painting, Mary Morton, this just-plain-terrific exhibition brings together more than forty paintings from private and public collections, spanning Corot’s entire career, from a radiant little study of a girl with a spindle, painted ca. 1826–27 during one of the young painter’s first trips to Italy, to the spectacular full-length chic Parisienne in a modish blue evening dressthe painting once owned by Rouartmade in 1874, the last year of the artist’s life. The thoughtful installation groups the works into three categories—single figures in costume, nudes, and women in the artist’s studio—and is punctuated by one large, mythological, early landscape with very small nude figures, Diana and Actaeon (Diana Surprised in Her Bath) (1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art), along with the artist’s only male nude, Saint Sébastien (ca. 1850–60, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon). (The former is obviously included to represent the sort of narrative figure painting, as adjunct to landscape, that Corot exhibited in the Salons, while the latter appears either in the interest of art historical comprehensiveness or gender equality.) There’s an excellent catalogue, with informative contributions by Morton, by Sébastien Allard (the head of the Louvre’s paintings department), and by the art history professors Heather McPherson and David Ogawa; the essays address, among other topics, such questions as Corot’s use of photography and his relationship with his modelsapparently excellent, since he encouraged them to move while posing, and was so benevolent that he was affectionately referred to as “Papa Corot.”

Camille Corot, Agostina, 1866, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In these days of accusation and protest, Corot’s impeccable reputation is worth noting. It supports the benign character of his images of women, both clothed and unclothed, in contrast to the thinly disguised prurience of the highly suggestive nudes produced by his colleagues among the Academicians, such as Bouguereau or Cabanel. In part, this is due to Corot’s touch. He’s a master of the judiciously loaded brush that deposits just enough paint to remind us that, the illusion of weight and mass notwithstanding, the image before us is made by transferring pigment to a flat surface. At the same time, there’s a sense of humanity and individuality to Corot’s women. They seem like people rather than types—introspective and self-aware. By contrast, Bouguereau’s and Cabanel’s nymphs and goddesses are aggressively generalized and conjured up by expanses of paint so sleek that they are often described as “licked,” an equivocal term that can resonate disturbingly, given the coy imagery of the paintings. Bouguereau and Cabanel, despite the ostensible mythological justification of their subject matter, always make us think first about impersonal flesh, presented for delectation. Corot makes us think about paint and particular people. Witness Agostina, one of the images Braque kept in his studio—a tall, powerful, confrontational presence, with her high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. She turns her head slightly away, gazing past us. We are conscious of Agostina as an individual (even after learning that she was a popular artist’s model), but we are also deeply engaged by the dry, rough surface of the painting and the progression of bold planes into the interior of the painting, from the foreground plinth on which Agostina delicately rests her hand to the horizontal wedge of her flowered apron to the geometric buildings in the distance.

Part of the potency of Corot’s paintings of women resides in the way he makes us concentrate on what the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin called “architectonic” structurea manner of composing with lucid combinations of clearly defined planes, like the generous forms of classical sculpture and architecture. The fresh, rapid studies of landscapes and architecture that Corot executed en plein air during his Italian sojourns have this quality, heightened by form-revealing light. These attributes are visible in the earliest work in “Corot: Women,” the little light-struck study of the girl with the spindle, with her red apron, painted from life when Corot traveled to remote areas around Rome seeking women in traditional costumes. This firm structure seems to point to Cézanne and beyond, to Cubismas Braque’s and Picasso’s attention suggests. It accounts, too, for why Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the passionate modernist and first director of the Museum of Modern Art, was an enthusiast of Corot’s figures. Barr’s influence is documented by the exhibition’s inclusion of the Smith College Museum of Art’s Blonde Gascon (ca. 1850). He famously urged the college to acquire the small, pared-down seated figure, with her full cheeks and heavy-lidded eyes. She dominates the picture’s space against an overcast sky; the near-continuity of the horizon and the block beneath the her arm contrasts sharply with her erect but relaxed posture, making us concentrate on the painting’s underlying abstractness.

Part of the potency of Corot’s paintings of women resides in the way he makes us concentrate on what the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin called “architectonic” structurea manner of composing with lucid combinations of clearly defined planes, like the generous forms of classical sculpture and architecture.

We encounter the early study of the girl with the spindle, Agostina, and The Blonde Gascon at the start of “Corot: Women,” along with other dazzlers, such as The Muse: History (ca. 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art), a modest, forthright masterpiece of subdued non-colors and simplified planes, once in the Havemeyer collection, that all but prefigures abstraction. The urgent brushmarks that suggest crumpled white cloth in the nearby Melancholy (ca. 1860, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)the pose inspired by Dürer’s engraving of the same nameare equally abstract, compelling, and non-chromatic. Although such works affirm how brilliantly Corot orchestrated grays, ochres, and unnameable neutralswhich must have interested the Cubists early on, when they restricted themselves to earth tonesother paintings announce his virtuosity with intense hues: the glorious Italian Girl (ca. 1872, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), for example, newly cleaned to reveal the riotous vermillion and dull green patterns of the girl’s apron, set off by a luminous white shirt, suggested with near-impressionist broken strokes.

Camille Corot, Jewish Woman of Algeria, ca. 1870, Oil on canvas, Private collection.

The incipient modernism of many of Corot’s women makes us think about his influence on later artists, but the same works can also demonstrate his profound understanding of the history of art, an awareness underscored by the selections in the second gallery. The pose and subtle modulation of Woman with a Pearl (ca. 1868–70, Musée du Louvre) attest to Corot’s study of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, while in the half-length Italian Womanthe bravura brushwork and play of yellow sleeve against blue bow, set off by white linen and a trace of red bodice, remind us that Vermeer, who was “rediscovered” in the mid-nineteenth century by the critic Tophile Thoré-Burger, offered an exciting new paradigm for adventurous painters. There are other parallels with Vermeer, as well. We begin to recognize, in painting after painting, articles of exotic clothing, regional costumes from Italy or Greece, in which Corot dressed his models. A pale coat with horizontal stripes appears several times, over several years, on different models, just as Vermeer’s fur-trimmed yellow jacket does on the women in his interiors. The elaborate finery of the contemplative model, head on hand, in Jewish Woman of Algeria (ca. 1870, private collection) appears nowhere else in the selection but offers further proof of Corot’s gifts as a colorist with its glow of the intense red, pink, silver, dull gold, and cream of the sitter’s embroidered garments and gossamer shawl, against a dark void.

A group of works made around 1870, left in unfinished or transitional states, offers insight into Corot’s methods. Most familiar is the Metropolitan’s Sibylle, another Havemeyer picture. The model’s head is solidly rendered, but the rest, including another iteration of that yellow sleeve, is summarily stroked, and there have been major changes. The figure once held a cello, but the instrument’s neck has been painted out and a flower placed in the sitter’s hand. More subtle pentimenti are visible in one of Mrs. Potter Palmer’s holdings, now in the Art Institute of Chicago: a woman holding a book, her seated body angled authoritatively against the rectangle of the canvas. Most revealing is the barely blocked-out Woman with a Pink Shawl (ca. 1865–1870, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which makes us imagine how Corot might have articulated the forms with bold overpainting.

Camille Corot, The Repose, 1860–70, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A gallery of small, sturdy nudes, mostly reclining in landscapes, sometimes on leopard skins that mark them as Bacchantes, reminds us of how well Corot understood the Venuses and odalisques of Giorgione, Titian, and Ingres. We’re also aware of how domesticated these nudes are and how obviously constructed with paint. The forms are simplified, the models self-possessed, relaxed and comfortable in their own skin. In the lush but restrained The Repose (1860, reworked 1865–1870, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), the model stares us down, as coolly as Manet’s Olympia, although Corot’s nude turns her back, while the leopard skin beneath her and a distant Bacchus place her safely in the mythological past. Critics of Corot’s day didn’t like the few nudes they were able to see, oddly complaining about the models’ hygiene; maybe it was the self-possession that rattled them. The most intimate (and seductive) of the nudes is a small oil on paper, inscribed “Marietta, Rome,” obviously painted from life on the artist’s 1843 trip to Italy. Corot is said to have treasured the work, perhaps because of the elegant play of haunch and calf muscle in the Ingres-inspired pose or because of the frank gaze of a very particular person and the implications of her barely glimpsed breast. There’s also a rather silly, but handsome, picture of a reclining Bacchante holding a dead bird up to what appears to be a stuffed leopard, ridden by a rather apprehensive putto; the precise subject has resisted interpretation to date.

The installation ends with a gallery of women in the artist’s studio. The curators have assembled a stunning, informative group, including a small study from the Baltimore Museum of Art (formerly owned by those collectors of advanced modernism, the Cone sisters) for the best known of these, along with the National Gallery’s Corot’s Studio: Woman Seated before an Easel, a Mandolin in Her Hand (ca. 1868) and the Louvre’s copy by Corot of the Washington picture. The model, in Italian costume, leans forward to contemplate a landscape, pinned by the complex geometry of the angular stovepipe, the easel, the objects on the wallincluding The Blonde Gasconeven the alert dog. It seems casual, anecdotal, until we recall that in Courbet’s immense tour de force, The Painter’s Studio (1855), subtitled “a real allegory,” he is at work on a landscape, watched by a nude model, indoors. We start thinking of Corot’s image, with its allusions to painting and music, its conflation of interior and exterior, the lively dog and the costumed model, as emblematic of a host of things: the senses, the arts, the natural world versus the fictional, perhaps more. Then we encounter the painting that once belonged to Rouart, the woman in the blue evening dress, turned away from us, in the studio; we abandon symbolism for the pleasure of keen observation recorded in the language of paint. That’s all we need.

1 “Corot: Women” opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on September 9 and remains on view through December 31, 2018.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 41
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